Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church

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            It is often said that God meets us where we are. The phrase “where we are” is an American idiom, and not a biblical phrase. Still, it is faithful to a very important part of the biblical witness. God is always seeking us out, and finds us where we are. We can see that in the Bible. God spoke to our first parents in the garden when they were there, and even though they got tossed out by their own fault, God followed their race to wherever it wandered; God kept meeting people wherever they were. God spoke to Abraham who dwelt among the pagans. When God’s people found themselves slaves in Egypt, God spoke to Moses and gave Moses the name of God and a mission to deliver the people. God brought them to Mount Sinai and spoke to them there the words of the covenant. Later, in the Promised Land, God spoke to them through the prophets. Cast out of the Promised Land, God spoke to them even in exile. Then, as the Letter to the Hebrews puts it, after having spoken in various and sundry ways to those of the past, in the fullness of time, God spoke to us in the person of God’s own Son. God the Word became flesh and came and dwelt among us. God does meet us where we are.

            Thus, God does not leave us alone, deserted, or as orphans. God seeks us out the way that a shepherd seeks a lost sheep, or a poor widow looks for a precious coin that is lost. God can meet us anywhere, and does meet us in all sorts of unusual places and unusual states of mind and being. The world in which we live is a world in which ordinary things wrap a mystery that is simply waiting to be unveiled. That is why and how God can meet us where we are. God meets us when we are infants, and when we are old; he meets us in fullness and in poverty, in shame and in pride, in sin and in righteousness.

            That thought, wonderful as it is, is only half the story, though.

            Consider how from this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus tells the disciples that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places. There is a lot of room in God’s house, and, perhaps, Jesus even means that there are a lot of ways of being in the kingdom. I think he does mean that. That is a thought that we find as comforting and as accepting as the thought that God meets us where we are. It may even seem to be a continuation of the thought that God meets us where we are, for even in the kingdom of God, difference--our difference--apparently plays a role. It has been more than one funeral that I have done where this passage is requested as a reading. It is comforting to think that there is a place for us, even us, in God’s kingdom, so that we can fit in there.

            That part of it, I think is right; that is, the wideness of God’s kingdom is right, and that we have hope because of that wideness is right. But, still, it is decidedly not the same thing to say that God meets us where we are and that there are many dwelling places in God’s house. Why? Because where we are now and God’s house are not the same thing; where we are now and where God means for us to end up are not the same thing at all. Between the two there can be a very wide gap– there is a very wide gap. That is very important to know, lest we get confused and think that we do not have to do any moving, or any changing; lest we think that God has anything less than our transformation in mind as God’s plan for us.

            That God does intend to move us and transform us is why Jesus then goes immediately from talking about there being many dwelling places in God’s house to teaching the disciples in these words: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” What he is saying is clear. To get to the dwelling places in God’s house, Christ will get us there. But it is just as clear, therefore, that we are going to do some moving to get there. We can’t stay here.

            That makes an even larger point. Christ does meet us where we are. Christ goes out and seeks us where we are, and that includes a lot of places where we are doing our best to hide from God. He accepts us as we are in that respect. But there is a reason that he meets us where we are, and that reason is that he intends to lead us to where we are not, but should be. Once he meets us where we are, he leads us away from that place to the rooms in our Father’s house.

            That is important to know about our religion. Pretty much any religion is trying to do something similar. Our Lord does not mean to hallow our choices by coming to us. God does not exist to confirm our personalities. God does not intend to just make us feel better. God intends to make us better, really better, and to bring us into God’s life. But, we do not seem to understand that, and, as a result, we have turned the Christian faith on its head.

            Over the course of a career of thinking about it, I have come to the conclusion that a great weakness of liberal Protestantism, especially recently, is that it has done a terrific job of preaching the wide undiscriminating love of God, of preaching God’s acceptance of us, but it has not done a good job at all of teaching us how to live, or of teaching us where we need to go, or where our true home is, much less how to get there. It has not taught us how to have an inner life.

            The Christian Century noted a couple of years ago that the favorite sermons of Americans, the sermons that move them most, are sermons on forgiveness, first, and then love and fellowship second. That makes all the sense in the world. The world of upper middle class America is competitive. It is one where we are striving to do everything right. But that has consequences; often, some pretty tough consequences. A while ago I was talking to a colleague who is the chaplain in one of America’s premier liberal arts colleges. In talking about her work at the college, she noted that the students she works with are really high achievers. But along with that high achievement always seems to go, she ironically noted, a sense of never being good enough. With that also goes a sense of being estranged from others, of having no community; a sense of alienation from others is a very natural result of being highly competitive. After all, you are trying to beat them. Those students are no different than their parents from whom they learned this. So, if that is what we are like, of course, we want to hear that God accepts us as we are. We want to hear that we are loved and we want to hear that there is a place for us. We can’t go on if we don’t believe that, or at least we can’t go on very long that way. So, the Church does need to tell us those things. But, it also needs to tell us that there is a different way to live. I don’t know that it has done this very well at all. In fact, I have rarely heard about it in seminaries or in churches, perhaps because we think we should just accept people and not tell them what to do, that it would be somehow offensive to teach this. But the Church needs to tell us how to live, for it is just plain crazy to continue to live in a way that demands you need to be told all the time that you are loved and accepted, because every day you are doing things that make you believe otherwise. It is crazy to live in a self-harming way for six days a week, and then come here to charge your batteries so you can go out and make yourself feel bad some more next week. You don’t just need forgiveness, although you need that, too, you need a different way to live, a way of living out that acceptance and a way that goes in a very different direction, a non-violent, non-competitive, non-self-absorbed way. We need forgiveness and always will, I suppose, but we should at least learn to make advanced mistakes, instead of the same basic ones all the time.

            Christ does accept us. There is no doubt about it. As Paul Tillich once said, “We need to accept that we are accepted.” But Christ also means in accepting us to transform us. Christ means to call us to great things, to great lives of peace and generosity of spirit. He means to lead us out from a limited point of view to one that takes in the whole world. It is because that is what he wants for us, that he goes out to find us where we are. It is because he wants that for us, that he does not just tell us about a way, and does not preach an ideology, but makes himself the Way. He is not the way to anything other than the truth, which is what he also is, and that truth is not anything other than life, which is what he is, too.

            And what of the end point? What of the house in which there are many dwellings to which he leads us? When we are willing to give up where we are now in order to get there, that house is where we become most ourselves, and it is there that there is a richness and breadth of life that one cannot find anywhere else. It is interesting that we want to be accepted for who we are, thinking that we are unique. We are willing to extend the thought to others from time to time. The fact of the matter, though, is that we are remarkable conformists, especially in the way that we think and love. There isn’t a lot of variety or richness. We present outer signs of difference to mark our territory and style, but often they cover up the lack of depth in our inner lives. Tolstoy in the opening to Anna Karenina famously said that all happy families are alike, but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Much as I like Tolstoy, on this one he was wrong. Unhappiness, and evil, and truncated personalities are remarkably alike, boringly similar, and come about for a very few common reasons. Psychologists will tell you that, which is why experience lets them treat so many people. If everybody had different problems there could be no carry over from patient to patient. Good people with good relations, though, are wildly and infinitely inventive in the ways that they are good. They have imagination, and they have energy in pursuing their imaginative ideals. That is why God’s house has so many dwelling places and the Evil One’s house has so few, and the ones it does have are all so overcrowded. The good people who live in God’s house have learned to be good in a lot of different ways. Christ means to lead us to that. It is for that reason that he seeks us out.

            Last year, we finished and approved a mission study. One phrase from it sticks in my mind: that people come here because they are looking for a Christian home in the city. In other words, they are looking for one of those dwelling places in God’s house. We can be that home; we are that home for many people. But we can only really be that place if we can teach people how to move from here to there. To do that, we have to show them the way, teach them to discern and care about the truth, and give them the communion and fellowship of the Spirit that they need for life.

            That, of course, means doing these things ourselves in all the ways that we can do these things – fellowship, conversation, Bible study, prayer, service, worship above all. But it especially means doing them for our children and the next generation. Next week we confirm new members. All year long we baptize children, because their parents think they want to give them values and that raising them in the Christian faith is the way to go. But we also know, that very few will be in a church in their mid-twenties or beyond. They will have no Christian home in this or any other city. They won’t care, either, from what experts can tell.

            The problem as tough as it is, is not insoluble, though. People will drift, and young adults will not return if they have never learned how to get from here to there, or what it would even mean to be here in God’s house as an adult, and why serious, good, inquiring adults might be here. But they will come back if they see that a desirable adult life can be lived here and lived well. We need to teach them. We need to imbue them with a sense of the mystery of God’s love – of how it accepts us but also demands that we move ahead. The only way to do that, though, is to embrace it ourselves both among ourselves and with them. We have to be the adults that they need to become. We have to show them the way, the truth and the life. We have to show them who Christ really is and what he means for us. 

            Let me leave you today with this prayer, a prayer adapted from a prayer of St. Paul for the church at Ephesus. It is the prayer of a pastor for his people.

            “Father, by whom all the families in heaven and on earth are named, hear my prayer for this family of God.

            “Out of your infinite glory, may their inner lives be strengthened by the Holy Spirit, and the indwelling of Christ in their heart by faith. So may they always be grounded and rooted in love.

            “Open their hearts and minds to take in the whole creation all the while knowing the love of Christ that surpasses all understanding. And so in everything may they always be filled with the fullness of God. Amen.”